“The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community.”
Much stir has been made in recent years over Korean monochrome painting, known as Dansaekhwa, and rightly so, as it gave the world of art a different kind of modernism, stretching the confines of a formerly western-centric notion of ‘modernist’ aesthetic and method. But within just the last year, the term ‘Dansaekhwa’ has started to lose its original association with Korea’s distinct response to modernism. The term is now regularly subjected to merely an association with the latest trend on the art market. In view of this shift, it seems timely to invest further in framing and defining the trajectory of modern and contemporary art in South Korea.
Kim Yong-Ik’s retrospective at the Ilmin Museum of Art documents the work of an artist who has worked with and within history. Kim Yong-Ik began his career under the influence of Dansaekhwa, yet he quickly transitioned to the politically and socially driven Minjung movement, from which he later departed to engage with public art, land art, and art education. Kim’s work revolves around a simmering and unsettled sense of responsibility; his method and approach moved through different styles and changed directions throughout his career, as his work and practice responded to the shifting social and political landscape around him. As much as Kim Yong-Ik has been influenced by his context he has also himself helped to shape it. His work reveals the path from modernity to contemporaneity in South Korea, and so it helps to frame the Korean cultural and artistic growth of the past 40 years.
Three floors of the Ilmin Museum of Art present three successive periods in the progress of Kim’s work. The first floor has on display his early Plane Object series, works rooted in Korean minimalism that show particular exploration with materiality. The second floor houses Kim’s signature dot paintings from the early 1990s, Closer… Come Closer… In these paintings, he creates “meaningless” grids of dots: the dot, or the circle, is repeated either symmetrical or aleatoric, as a simple formal solution rather than an in-depth minimalist investigation. Kim treats the surface – in this case the canvas – with humor and even ridicule, as he scribbles or makes notes, leaves fingerprints, shoe prints or various smudges. This body of work shows his clear departure from Dansaekhwa and his strong response to its confining discipline and reverence. Closer… Come Closer… reveals Kim’s belief in the democratization of art making and reveals his investigations surrounding issues related to the history of painting, the ethics of art making, and the visibility and efficacy of a work of art.
The top floor of the retrospective is dedicated to his most recent work, most of the pieces having been completed within the last two years. After a break from producing art, during which Kim focused his attention on the concerns of the local artistic community, on creating and sustaining alternative spaces, as well as public and environmental art, Kim began a new series that brings together, with maturity and a sense of closure, his whole artistic practice as well as his philosophy.
The “coffin series” is comprised of complex assemblages, wooden coffin-like boxes with glass covers–much like the coffins in which relics are kept–in which he encases, or buries his own paintings. He adds writing, symbolic imagery and artifact-like objects, all being the accumulation and the remnants of forty years of practice. The ‘coffins’ are a gesture of adieu, but also vulnerable, honest, and beautifully crafted objects that bring together all of Kim’s artistic practice: his writing, his paintings, his philosophies and investigations.
In his writings, which mostly cover the glass surface of the ‘coffins,’ we detect influences from Rancière and Schiller’s philosophies of aesthetic education and a desire to reconcile the practice of art making with societal needs: “the new aesthetic will be neither an aesthetic of authenticity nor a pre-modern aesthetic of sincerity that does not recognize the gap between societal needs and individual desires.”*
For Kim Yong-Ik, focusing on culture and community has always been more essential than simply producing new objects: “I no longer paint new paintings. To the contrary, I keep old, soiled, worn-out paintings as they are, continue to make them dirty, paint over them, wrap them, and make coffins and entomb them inside.” The making of objects is not what pushes culture forward, but rather the cultivation of aesthetic education, since it is the only way, as Schiller suggests, to transform the morality of individuals and society, to “restore the individual self-realisation in a harmonious community.”**
Kim Yong-Ik has an onerous sense of responsibility. Not out of a rebellious spirit, but rather out of a self-accountable conscience, he rejected the “ethics of convention” throughout his artistic life, pushing away from the institutionalized utilitarian function of art, and opting for resistance against “social numbness.” Being a responsible participant in the community and incessantly questioning the purpose of art is what still makes him a relevant artist today. His career truly spans from modernism to contemporaneity, and his artistic path not only displays but clearly drives development in the artistic and cultural conscience in South Korea. He is perhaps a true avant-garde artist, not one that develops experimental concepts but one that deconstructs the existing ones in order to create a new “distribution of the sensible.” As Rancière suggests, “politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”***
Dedicating a retrospective to an artist who swam against the current his entire artistic life, who is not the hottest item on the bidding list, but rather an artist who searched for the sensible and the meaningful, who pushed art and artistic practice to question itself and therefore to grow and expand, offers a breath of fresh air. It is a significant gesture for an artistic institution to make, not only for the institution itself but for the artistic and cultural growth of South Korea as well. Kim Yong-Ik’s retrospective at the Ilmin Museum of Art is stellar, commendable, auspicious.
*Kim Yong-Ik, February 21, 2015
**Sean Sayers, Review of Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible.
***Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible